Latinosan – Cali, Colombia

Hacienda el ParaisoI just returned from my 4th South American country – Colombia! I was there attending Latinosan 2007, the Latin American Sanitation Conference, in Cali. There were about 800 participants from 40 different countries from all over the world, all talking about sanitation and hygiene promotion. It was a really interesting conference and I also managed to see some of the sights and have some fun!

Cali is located at about 1,000m above sea-level, in western Colombia. The climate is great. Everyday it was about 27 or 28C. There is a range of mountains between Cali and the Pacific Ocean and every afternoon brought strong winds. At night, it was the perfect temperature to go out without a jacket. November is also the rainy season there, but it didn’t rain too much. Cali is also the salsa capital of Colombia! It used to be the home of the Cali Cartel, but the heads of the cartel are now in jail in the US.

We (my boss Susana, myself and a man from the ministry of water) arrived in Cali on Sat night (Nov 10th) and were picked up at the airport by people from UNICEF in Colombia. After a brief stop at the conference center, which was brand new and had just been inaugurated the week before (and still had scaffolding all over the place and wet paint here and there!) we checked into the hotel and went out for dinner at a restaurant nearby. It had been a long day, so we headed to bed after dinner.

On Sunday we were able to go to the shopping centre, called Chipichapi. It is built in an old train station and is huge! I don’t usually like malls, but the prospect of actual shops like you see at home was somewhat exciting, plus it was an open-air mall. There aren’t any malls in Bolivia. We did a bit of shopping and I bought myself some salsa music. If you’re in the capital of salsa, you can’t really leave without some, can you? After a quick lunch and some ice cream (I love warm climates!) we headed to the conference center to help set up the UNICEF stand where we would be giving away materials from various offices and telling people about our projects. I was to volunteer there for the week. On Sunday night, once most of the people from other UNICEF offices arrived, we all went out for a great dinner where I was served a giant plate of risotto.

LatinosanMonday was the start of the conference. The goal of Latinosan was to promote the year of sanitation, which will take place in 2008, to raise awareness for sanitation and promote the need for work in the area. Everybody likes to work with water – it’s easier to find funding and the political benefits of providing clean water are much greater than providing sanitation facilities. As a result, sanitation is lagging behind the provision of clean water and in many countries the MDG will not be met at the rate things are going. There will be similar conferences taking place in Africa and Asia next year. On Monday there were opening presentations in the morning and in the afternoon there were presentations by each country on how sanitation is progressing or not progressing in their country. At the end of the day, there was a show of typical Colombian dances from areas around the country and a reception.

The technical sessions started on Tuesday, and I attended sessions on hygiene promotion and sanitation in schools, as well as a few regarding ecological sanitation and one given by Paul Sherlock, the head for emergency water and sanitation in UNICEF. Most of the presentations were really interesting. At night, a dinner had been organized for the people attending the conference from UNICEF, the World Bank, WSP and Cinara (a research institute in Colombia) to promote inter-agency communication and projects. The restaurant was in a hacienda (an old sugar cane plantation) and the food was delicious. I ordered the 3-meat grill, but I don’t think I finished half of it.

Wednesday had more technical sessions. Again I attended some on ecological sanitation and hygiene promotion. All week I was manning the stand during breaks and part of lunch. We gave away almost all of our materials in the first 2 days. Wednesday at lunch everyone who was there from Bolivia sat together to discuss sanitation in Bolivia, although mostly what was discussed what the Chiva (more on that later!). Wednesday I had a great dinner at an Italian restaurant with a few people from UNICEF in Panama and Nicaragua.

Thursday morning was the political session. Ministers and Vice-Ministers from 22 different countries in Latin America and the Carribean were present to sign the Cali Declaration – a declaration designed to commit governments to improve sanitation in their countries and put it on the forefront of the political agenda. There will be another Latinosan conference in 2010 to measure the results achieved. Afterwards, UNICEF Nicaragua won the award for the best sanitation video! In the afternoon we took down the stand and I attended the discussion for Andean countries which covered ecological sanitation in Bolivia, as well as water safety plans and other topics from other Andean countries.

Thursday night was the fiesta. I went out for dinner with some UNICEF colleagues and had another great dinner. We then went on to the fiesta which was taking place in a hotel near mine. There was a live group playing Colombian music (which I now love!!), and lots of dancing by all. In the middle of the fiesta there was a show by some professional salsa dancers and a world champion tango couple. It was amazing to watch, and impossible to replicate! Try as I might, salsa is difficult and I didn’t really get it. I think salsa lessons are in order before I return to South America.

Escuela YarumalesWe were able to choose between several field trips on Friday in and around Cali. I chose to visit two schools about an hour away in a rural community to see how they have done their sanitation facilities and whether they have successfully changed the hygiene habits of the students. Both schools had flush toilets and septic tanks that drained into a sewer system from the municipality. They also both had tiny toilets for the small students (see photo!), and handwashing facilities. After having a tour and presentation about the systems, the students put on a show for us with dances from their community. It’s amazing how well those kids can dance! We had a late lunch on arriving back in Cali and then I headed back to the hotel for a bit of a nap before meeting up with some people for a quick dinner.

The conference was really interesting. I met a lot of people who are working towards improving sanitation in Latin America, some with some great ideas. I also made contacts from other organizations as well as contacts with other UNICEF offices. It was great to get to know the other UNICEF staff working in water and sanitation. It was my first international conference and they even had direct translation, although they didn’t have it for the presentation that was in Portuguese, unfortunately. The heads of the water and sanitation departments from many international organizations were in attendance, as well as heads of government departments.

Saturday I woke up early to have a tour of the city. Unfortunately Susana was quite sick for part of the week, so she stayed back in the hotel and slept. I had signed up for a tour of the Valle del Cauca (the valley of the Cauca River, which runs through Colombia) and they were supposed to pick me up at 7am. Well, after calling and calling and tentatively arranging another tour with some friend of the receptionist at the hotel, my tour finally arrived at 8:30am. And I was the only one on it! So off I went in a yellow taxi on my tour. We drove for about an hour through fields of sugar cane to get to the town of Buga, where there is a big basilica which is the base of the tourism in the town.

Hacienda el ParaisoAfter that we stopped at Hacienda El Paraiso. A hacienda is an old sugar cane plantation from the 19th century, where the rich lived and their slaves did all the work. As a result, the African population in Colombia is quite large, unlike Bolivia where it is pretty small. The hacienda had a beautiful view of the valley, and also some gorgeous rose gardens. There was a channel with water flowing all around the house to keep it cool and to keep the bugs out. Hacienda El Paraiso is famous because it is the setting of a novel by Jorge Issac called “Maria”.

After the hacienda we went to the Museo de la Cana de Azucar (sugar cane museum). There in the beautiful yard of the hacienda they had equipment that was used in the past for getting the juice out of the sugar cane, from hand-operated machines of wood to animal operated machines and finally the first engine-operated machines and tractors. Very cool. From there we returned to the city, where for a minimal extra charge, the taxi brought me by the Iglesia Ermita, which is a landmark of Cali, and then up to a lookout to see the city and the Cristo Rey statue that overlooks the city. The statue is a giant statue of Christ, but not as big as the one in Rio. Unfortunately the day was hazy and visibility was low so the pictures didn’t turn out well. Finally the taxi brought me to a little market with artisan crafts … and of course I bought a pair of leather sandals. And then I ran out of money, saving myself from buying more things!

Back at the hotel I had a bit of a nap before trying to organize a night out with some of the people from the conference who were still around – two people from the University of Sussex and one from Colombia. They are trying to set up a research institution for work in solid waste. It seems like a great idea. Anyway, we were going to try to go on a Chiva. A Chiva is an open bus with music playing and space for dancing that serves drinks as it takes you from bar to bar to dance salsa all night. It looked like a lot of fun. And we almost did go on one…until we found out that they don’t come back until 3:30 am and the place they take you is very far away (and we were all traveling on Sunday to various places).

Tower of BeerSo we decided to go for a beer instead, which was fun. In the district where there are several bars, they are all open onto the street with tables and chairs on the sidewalk and all are blaring music out onto the street. We chose one that had a dance floor and also offered beer in towers (again, see photo). We of course ordered a tower of beer, which comes with glasses about 1/4 full with lemon juice and rimmed with salt. This was the first time the brits and I had seen this, and we were willing to give it a go. As you will see from the photos, Ryan, one of the brits, was not a big fan!! I didn’t mind it, as long as I didn’t get a mouthful of salt! We stayed there long enough to finish the tower and dance (or try) a few salsas. Then headed back to the hotel.

Sunday morning I packed up to leave and we took a taxi back to the airport to head back to La Paz. I was very impressed by Colombia. The selection of food and restaurants and bars is great and all the food I ate was really good, although there did seem to be a lot of meat involved (but it is S. America!). The people are so open and seem to love life to the fullest. The music is fantastic. I have fallen in love with salsa (although I can’t actually dance to it very well – but I would love to know how!) and also with Colombia. I was only there a week, but I would love to go back and see the rest of the country. I had to restrain myself in the airport in Lima from getting on the flight back to Bogota instead of getting on the flight to La Paz! However I did indeed get back to La Paz, and I am now back with less than 5 weeks to go and a whole lot to get done!

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Posted in colombia | travel Submitted by Meg on Tue, 2007-11-20 21:22

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